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The COVID-19 pandemic has placed our families, communities and the world in a state of uncertainty. During times like these, we must be especially vigilant in combating the age-old viruses of hate and prejudice, which reassert themselves throughout history in times of fear. We see them on display as the COVID-19 pandemic is racialized and weaponized against people of Asian and African descent and Jews.
Glance at the news or social media, and you will see how hate and prejudice creeps into our daily lives, oftentimes without us even noticing. Political leaders at all levels have referred to COVID-19 as the “ Wuhan virus” or “ Chinese virus.” People of Asian descent have been targeted with racist and xenophobic slurs at the grocery store and while going about their daily lives. Asian-owned businesses, once filled with customers and visitors, now struggle to stay open for business.
Stereotypes about people of Asian descent date back centuries in the United States to when Chinese migrants first started to arrive in significant numbers in the 1800s. Racist cartoons of the time falsely depicted “Asians” as dirty and diseased, amplifying ugly narratives portraying immigrants as disloyal, job stealers or worse. These stereotypes were reinforced as people of Asian descent were forced to live in crowded and unsanitary ghettos, without access to basic public services like water, sewage and fire and police protection. The prejudice was so pervasive that it led to a series of laws, including the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited Chinese immigrants from entering the United States and barred citizenship to those already here. These laws were America’s first exclusionary immigration laws aimed at an entire ethnic group.
Jews experienced much of the same in Europe and later in the United States. During the Middle Ages, Jews were blamed for the plague, the “Black Death, and were massacred in the thousands all across Europe. Anti-Semitism and scapegoating of Jews, fueled by both religious and political leaders, continued for centuries and was part of the reason why many Jewish immigrants sought refuge in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Just as anti-Asian xenophobia was codified in the Chinese Exclusion Act, anti-Semitism and a growing eugenics movement fueled the passage of the 1924 Immigration Act, which retroactively set quotas based on 2% of “national origins” in 1890 and prevented immigration from Asia. The year 1890 was chosen intentionally in part because it came before a large wave of Jewish immigration. The 1924 Immigration Act laid the foundation for U.S. refusal to accept Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust during World War II.
Black Americans too are affected by the racialization and weaponization of diseases. False stereotypes about people of African descent being immune to diseases or more physically able to endure pain, among others, date back to the 18th century and fuel misinformation about black immunity to COVID-19 today. In fact, the virus has disproportionately impacted the black community at alarming rates. Structural inequities including unequal access to healthcare and treatment are contributing to disproportionate numbers of black people dying from COVID-19 in some states.
The language we use and the actions we take during this crisis will have lasting impacts. History teaches us that pandemics bring out the worst in some people. That is why we encourage our fellow Mainers to be especially aware of how black, brown and Jewish people are disproportionately impacted and discriminated against during times of crisis historically — and now. Racism is a virus, too.
This April, the Holocaust and Human Rights Center celebrates our 35th anniversary of educating and using the history and lessons of the Holocaust and other events past and present to encourage individuals and communities to reflect and act upon their moral responsibilities to confront prejudice, intolerance and discrimination.
We ask you to join us and stay with us in the fight against hate and prejudice in all its forms.
Nancy Spiegel and Tam Huynh are the president and vice president of the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine.
Watch: Nirav Shah addresses racial disparities in treating coronavirus cases nationwide